AIDS claimed a million lives in 2016, almost half the 2005 toll that marked the peak of the deadly epidemic, said a UN report Thursday proclaiming “the scales have tipped”.
Not only are new HIV infections and deaths declining, but more people than ever are on life-saving treatment, according to data published ahead of an AIDS science conference opening in Paris on Sunday.
Experts warned, however, that much of the progress can be undone by growing resistance to HIV drugs.
Unless something is done, drug-resistant virus strains may infect an extra 105,000 people and kill 135,000 over the next five years, and boost treatment costs by $650 million (560 million euros), said the World Health Organization (WHO).
According to a UNAIDS global roundup, 19.5 million of 36.7 million people living with HIV in 2016 had access to treatment.
This marked the first time that more than half of infected people were receiving anti-retroviral treatment, which rolls back the AIDS virus but does not completely eliminate it.
“We could get 2.4 million new people on treatment” in 2016, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe told journalists in Paris. “We are saving lives.”
The report said AIDS-related deaths have fallen from 1.9 million in 2005 to one million in 2016, adding that “for the first time the scales have tipped.”
The year 2016 saw 1.8 million new infections, almost half the record number of some 3.5 million in 1997, said UNAIDS.
In total, 76.1 million people have been infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, since the epidemic started in the 1980s. Some 35 million have died.
“Communities and families are thriving as AIDS is being pushed back,” said Sidibe.
“As we bring the epidemic under control, health outcomes are improving and nations are becoming stronger.”
As yet, there is no HIV vaccine or cure, and infected people rely on lifelong anti-retroviral therapy to stop the virus replicating.
Without treatment, HIV-infected people go on to develop AIDS, a syndrome that weakens the immune system and leaves the body exposed to opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis, and some types of cancer.
Treatment carries side effects and is costly, but allows infected people to be healthier for longer.